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06 October 2012

Wearing My Feminism on My Sleeve

I apologize, dear reader, for taking this autobiographical sidetrack from classic movies. It is not my habit to use this blog to discuss my personal views. That said, I was led this morning to write this article about feminism. I do not mean to offend anybody with my views and this is not a political rant, by any means. It is simply a metacognitive look at how I became a feminist. It is kind of Katharine Hepburn's fault, so I have allowed myself to publish it here. I am not offended if you are not in the least bit interested. Staye tuned for more posts about classic film history after this!

Although I consider myself a feminist now, I have not always done so. I was raised in a fairly respectable middle class family; my parents are conservative and they raised my brother and me to share their views, without actually forcing them upon us. Bill Clinton was always referred to as “Slick Willy” at our dinner table, and after 9/11 we put up our American flag and supported George Bush 100%. But then the United States invaded Iraq I thought, “Now, wait a minute. Where are you going with this one, W.?” At college two professors in particular had a profound effect on my political education. One was liberal and one was conservative, and I am so grateful to both of them for being such just, fair, open-minded individuals as they encouraged me to cultivate my own political views.

When I read Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography (Me, 1996) in my sophomore year in college, I found myself as interested in her progressive upbringing as in her film career. Hepburn’s mother, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, was orphaned at sixteen, yet still managed to put herself and her younger sisters through Bryn Mawr College. Both she and her sister Edith threw themselves into progressive reform work after graduation and marriage. They worked tirelessly for woman suffrage and birth control, taking what they had learned at Bryn Mawr to help raise the standard of women’s rights.
As I began studying Progressive Reform Era feminism (1st wave feminism), I felt myself becoming more sympathetic with the feminist, gender, and sexuality issues of my own time. Frankly, I am not terribly interested in politics, as such; the mud-slinging, back-stabbing, and corruption that goes on in government bores the brains out of me. But I am a compassionate individual who likes to make informed decisions based on my highest sense of right. Sometimes this means I support the liberals, sometimes the conservatives. But I will always support the women’s movement.

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel
"The Avengers"
Last night I was surfing YouTube when I came across a segment of an interview Diana Rigg had given with Mark Lawson in 2011, in which she discusses her views on feminism. I am a big fan of Rigg in “The Avengers” (1965-1968) and the “Mrs. Bradley Mysteries” (1998-2000), and my friends and I have always thought of her as a sort of prototype feminist in these roles. However, in the 2011 interview, Rigg takes a rather ambivalent stance on feminism. On the one hand she says, “The [feminist] issue is quite simple. Within yourself you are an individual and you are free. You are a free individual.” Agreed. The she goes on to define the feminist movement (of the 1960s): “The only fetters that the feminists have are the economic fetters. And once we have parity with men, which we do in my profession, I’ve got no gripe at all.”

Similar views on feminism, and the feminist movement, have been shared by other individuals whom many consider feminist figures. Katharine Hepburn rejected being associated with feminism in her 1973 interview with DickCavett, saying, “We did that, many years ago.” In Bette Davis’s interview with Cavett, she accepted his offer to light her cigarette, stating, “I’m not women’s lib.”
One may be taken aback, as I was, hearing these women, who had broken down so many gender barriers by living progressive professional and personal lives, speak this way about the feminist movement. However, we must be clear that these women are no less feminist figures simply because they rejected the feminist movement of their own time.  In the first place, the feminist movement of the time was misunderstood in many respects. Secondly, the movement has evolved to have different priorities in a different age. Finally, feminism in any form will always be misunderstood by much of society. This is what feminists are working to change.
 1st wave feminism or Progressive Reform Era feminism refers to the social movement of the late-19th and early-20th century involving the fight for woman suffrage, property rights, and to a lesser extent birth control rights. The 2nd wave feminist movement of the late 1960s through the 1970s was instrumental in achieving gender parity in the workplace, in politics, and in society in general. The feminists of the 1960s could be extremely radical, and the negative implications associated with the term “feminism” can often be traced back to this era.
The most recent swelling of feminist activity is being termed 3rd wave feminism. Today’s feminist movement covers a broader scope of individuals, adopting a diversity of social issues including race/ethnicity and queer theory. The general goal of 3rd wave feminism is to actively realize the potentials made possible by the preceding feminist movements. This means not only supporting the middle-class white woman, but also women of mixed races, women living in poverty, and women in developing countries. The expectations for wealthy western societies are also heightened as feminists realize how little the achievements of the earlier feminist movements are being manifested in the most supposedly “advanced” countries, like the United States and Great Britain.

All of these objectives are worth fighting for. Although women have certainly advanced by leaps and bounds throughout the 20th century, it would be naïve to believe that the work is concluded, that women have achieved complete equality with men in every field. The problem now, as before, is convincing a society of individuals that women should be 100% equal with men. First we must recognize that women are not currently treated as equal. Then we must believe that they should be equal. Then we must lay down the ground rules that establish women as equals. Finally, we must live the full potential allowed by those rules. Only when all of these steps are embraced by the majority of the population will true gender/sexual equality be realized.

The way I see it, the root of the problem (gender inequality) is in how we define the expectations of gender in our individual consciousness. Let’s look at how society defines gender for us. The biggest influence is in home life. What do the men and women within your home do? How do they behave? What do they expect of themselves and of each other? The second biggest influence are the external factors which enter the home by way of media and literature. How is gender defined by what we see on TV, in movies, and in the magazines on our coffee table? The third influential force would be in our educational system, and so on and so forth. Eventually, we start to make decisions based on what we have seen and been told. We either choose to perpetuate the norm, or we deliberately become the change we wish to see.
There are an infinite number of character traits floating around our consciousness. Some traits have positive connotations while others are much more negative. Many of these qualities are gendered. The disparity comes when the value of a certain character trait varies based on the gender to which it is being applied. For example, “gentleness” as a word is positive. When it is applied to the female, it adopts an almost holy status. But it is not an encouraged characteristic in the male. When applied to a masculine subject, it becomes more closely associated with the more negative traits, like “weakness” and “cowardice.” Another example could be “decisiveness.” A decisive man is praised for his forthrightness, but a decisive woman is often called “bitchy.”

These definitions of gender expectations are unfair to both sexes. I dream of a world when strength is encouraged in both men and women. Will there come a day when both genders can show unconditional compassion without compromising their sexuality? Every day I go to pick up the kids I babysit from school. I stand on the playground with dozens of moms and wonder how many of them would rather be at work and how many of their husbands would rather be here collecting the kids. Maybe they are perfectly content. Maybe they don’t know that they would rather be in the other position because it never occurred to them to consider it. Perhaps they are satisfied because they feel, albeit unconsciously, they are properly fulfilling the expectations put upon them by society.
When I look at the images of Marilyn Monroe (above) that have become so iconic, I see a talented, intelligent young woman who has died her hair blond, put on a bathing suit, and thrust out her chest in order to find success in the world, and I think, “I want more than that.” I want more for her, as well as for myself, my friends, my mother, my children. I look at Katharine Hepburn and her mother and I think, “By gum, she is pretty damned close to what I want all women to be able to achieve!” As in any model, there are flaws. But the more role models we hold before us, the better we can develop our own sense of gender identity, and encourage others to reach higher.
As we promote progressive images of gender, the more those images will become reality. By the other token, every time a woman is objectified in the media we take five steps backward. Think of it this way: if every joke on TV about an effeminate man meant that a little boy got bullied at school for wearing pink, would you laugh as hard? If every commercial where a woman’s breasts are used to sell a product meant a teenage girl got raped on the way home from school, would you buy that product? Please, think about what concepts of gender identity you are allowing into your conscience. Take the time to examine how you view yourself and those around you. Then please, please, make informed decisions about what you do, how you behave, and how you vote. Remember that everything you do can either perpetuate or progress the current state of things. And above all, live with compassion.

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  1. This is probably my favorite thing you've ever written. It's a fantastic article, very thorough and makes very good points. Feminism is very dear to my heart, it has always been, I was lucky enough to grow up in a liberal family like Katharine's, that encouraged me go out and seek my own future, regardless of what society expected of my gender. And when I made the decision of not having any children, I was, despite misunderstood by the general society surrounding me, very respected by my parents. I know I'm young, but I already know that I have no interest in spending the rest of my life raising a family. I respect women who do, but it's not what I want, and I am unlucky to be born at a time that still doesn't regard that with full normality.
    I think Hepburn and Davis denied being feminists because they denied being icons of anything at all. They couldn't be anti-feminists or even not believe in the feminist ideals and be the way they were (especially Hepburn). There's a quote of Davis' that I adore that says "My greatest trouble is to reconcile the woman nature expects me to be with the woman that I am." They are both such role models to me.
    Again, thank you so much for writing this. I had a great time reading it and I definitely will take it with me as a lesson.

    1. Marcela, thank you so much for sharing your story here. I agree with what you say about Davis and Hepburn - I would say that's also true for Diana Rigg and many other actresses. I am so pleased you liked this post!

  2. "A decisive man is praised for his forthrightness, but a decisive woman is often called “bitchy.” " It's so true. Well said, Margaret. As a male, this was never really on the forefront of my awareness, especially as a child. In my early-20's, I dated a feminist and it was eye opening. The double-standards became very clear and I was initially ashamed that I'd never noticed them before. I was introduced to new writers and artists and saw the achievements in such small things as Katherine Hepburn wearing slacks.

    I agree with the other poster, this is one of your best pieces. :)

    1. Thank you! It is nice to hear about a guy who was willing to really listen to his girlfriend. Don't feel too ashamed about not noticing it - I didn't at first. We mustn't get too caught up in how far we've come, but must continue to look for what still needs to be done. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Thanks for sharing this, Margaret. Wonderful, personal expression of your journey. As a woman who made a choice not to have children, I am more often than I'd like, to be honest, confronted with attitudes of "a wasted life." I do not regret my decision but that is a reminder of how much further society needs to go in accepting and valuing women as forces beyond what has been designed as "proper". We should not be limited to anyone's expectations.

    I will add that this year's election is historic most for what's at stake for us. Without telling anyone what's right or wrong, it is vital that Americans, women in particular, are well informed about what's at stake.


    1. Aurora, thanks so much for your two cents - always welcome! I agree that this election is pivotal in regards to women's issues, which is perhaps why I have become more interested than in previous elections. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Margaret, this is a wonderful article. I was lucky enough to grow up in a progressive, liberal family like Kate's ("Republican" was a dirty word in our house!) and we were raised to be proud of being female. I was definitely brought up to be a feminist, but in my adulthood I consider myself an egalitarian, and don't particularly like the word "feminist" because it sounds like women are now being treated as higher than men, which is equally unfair. And I agree with Citizen Screen above in that women need to be aware of just how much is at stake in this election. We're in danger of taking a gigantic step backwards in women's rights.

    1. It is a bit concerning how close we are to undoing a lot of the good progress women have made in the last 100 years! I agree that the word "feminist" presents a number of problems, not least of which is that we are really dealing with problems of gender, both genders, rather than just the advancements of women. Thanks for commenting!


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!